The games industry is changing so incredibly fast, but it remains the nouveau riche whipper-snapper of the art world - and viewed less than favourably in some quarters. When we older games journalists introduce our chosen profession outside of 'friendly' circles, we are often met with raised eyebrows, as though suggesting: "At your age?". Would a film critic be met with such a response? Doubtful. So, why is this so?
In the early days of motion pictures, the medium's mix of commercial entertainment, technology and spectacle made it immensely threatening to the old guard. As historian Daniel Czitrom notes, Thomas Edison pioneered early development of film in the US, but also led a campaign for the 'moral purfication' of the nascent industry. This was partially for the financial gain of his Motion Picture Patents Company, but equally in response to outrage at the prospect of young people congregating at the flicks, having their minds 'warped' by this new artistic force.
Motion pictures transformed to a commercial entertainment force by making people's dreams become real, something games do as well if not better. But, just as with literature before, film developed into a truly respected art form by reflecting, informing and even shaping human lives. Movies delight us, but they also raise and reflect the issues that exist in our world, sometimes leading to major change.
Ken Loach's BBC television play Cathy Come Home sent shockwaves around the UK in the 1960s for its harrowing portrayal of issues of poverty and homelessness. Errol Morris's 1988 film The Thin Blue Line documented the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man sentenced to death in the US for a murder he did not commit. The ensuing outcry resulted in his case being reviewed, and he was ultimately released.
Alice Taylor previously worked at Channel 4, where she commissioned various educational games. She is now the chief executive of toy and games company MakieLab. Taylor, who also writes the Wonderland blog, said that many indie developers are already dealing with 'real' issues in their games, but the reason most triple A titles do not cover topics such as homelessness is because they are viewed as "not themes that will sell a million copies".
"It depends if the publisher wants to pay for the coding time in order to explore those themes," she said. "For that to happen, they're going to have to really believe in the auteurship of the creative director. I think it could happen; but it won't happen easily. There will always be someone looking at the balance sheet and wondering whether that racism set piece, say, is necessary to the overall production cost. Indies, of course, do what they want to do. You often find indie games introducing more unusual themes or commentary."
Phil Stuart is the creative director of Preloaded, the BAFTA-winning UK studio behind fun games that also have "a purpose". This includes Axon, a game dealing with the neuroanatomy of the human brain, and The End, a self-discovery title exploring issues of death and belief.
Stuart feels that one of the key advantages of games is the ability to model complex behaviours and relationships in an engaging manner, often seen best in strategy titles. For example, environmental issues are well covered in titles such as Spore, From Dust, and global warming game Fate of the World, while politics, war and morality are dealt with in Civilization, Populous and Sim City.
He believes that an important shift is coming not in the type of games, but in the approach of studios. It is possible, he said, to harness mass participation of gaming for "the greater good", giving the example of WeTopia. The Facebook game, made by Sojo Studios, involves players building their own virtual city and spending an in-game currency called "joy", which in turn benefits real-world charities, such as Save the Children.
While Stuart stressed that games are able to make deep connections with a broad audience, he noted that long development cycles, particularly for the bigger-budget titles, can make it difficult for them to actually "mirror" real life.
"For games to connect with the audience, to have the resonance with an increasingly mainstream game-playing public, the games need to be relevant," he said. "Large-scale simulation games, such as SimCity, look to recreate life as we know it as a means to increase the impact of the experience. Games like LA Noire or Heavy Rain place emphasis on the realism of characters and attempt to convey real emotion to create empathy with the audience. One of the biggest challenges for a game designer is the speed at which games can be created to mirror life."
Good work is already being done on creating strategies to drive down the costs of production for studios and companies, in order to free them up to pursue more challenging and complex ideas. This includes a new Game-o-Matic authoring tool put forward at Games Developers Conference by Ian Bogost, a professor in digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner at Persuasive Games, that can help create "simple, short-form games about current events or other topics". So all the core elements are there to make ambitious titles (and, indeed, many studios are already doing so), but is the appetite there to take this onto the big stage?
"J-Dating is huge in the East, so some games on that topic will start to turn up, I'm betting," she said. "Obviously, it's a huge theme too: can be broken down into dating mechanics (matching, resource management, timing), narrative (dialogue, choices), sex (porn) games - probably taboo for most publishers - and I'm sure other types of games I'm not thinking about right now, because it's a pretty unexplored genre."
Another factor that should be noted is lack of women represented in the industry. The people who make games are 94% male, and both Taylor and Stuart accepted that this is a big challenge facing the industry going forward. It would be unfair to suggest that men cannot make games that deal with the human condition, but it is also clear that if the industry was made up of 50% women, then there would be more balance in the issues covered.
Balance is pressing, as games are no longer played just by teenage boys in their bedrooms. The average gamer is 32, while the average social gamer is a 42-year-old woman; as Stuart notes, "games are bought by the adults for adults". He said that games aren't 'growing up', per se, they are just "becoming more mainstream". This has mostly been fuelled by the wider adoption of smartphones, which has broadened out the market beyond just the "core gamer stereotype".
"We have a new audience that wants new types of games - it's an incredibly exciting time to be making games," he said. "Online gaming has always been the most experimental, but the self-publishing revolution has meant that game designers can tell their 'story' anyhow and anywhere."
It is abundantly clear that film critic Roger Ebert was being unfairly snooty when he claimed in 2010 that video games could never be considered art. Games are art, because they delight us, they inspire us, and they also enrich our lives. But games offer a different experience to films, television and books, as they require direct participation from the user.
"Should games be reviewed and understood like film, theatre, dance, books? Of course they should," said Taylor. "But because games are interactive, and require a certain input from the player (unlike the passive medium of watching or listening) and often a skill-based input, they will always be different. They are demanding of their consumer: you usually have to have some kind of skill or at least a willingness to learn, in order to participate. That's a barrier that the young leap with ease, and the old less so!"
"There's something immense and, specifically, very long-lasting about having played a thoughtful video game," she said. "While often the experience of a book or a movie may leave me quite quickly (I can't remember now the visceral feeling of greatness I had after seeing Inception, although I remember it being there), I can recall the feelings from having played Portal 2, or Limbo or Left 4 Dead quite tangibly. A very, very deep sense of satisfaction. I would worry that 'grown-up' games had to mean film-like. What does 'grown-up' even mean here? Does it mean 'serious', or any sense that in order to be grown up, there should be less fun? Interesting, isn't it? If 'grown-up' means be more like film, I think we should kibosh that thought straight away."
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